Early high school athletes had many hurdles to overcome
In this episode of Step Back in Time, Robert Fritz reflects on the challenge of competing in high school athletics in Otsego County in the 1920s and 1930s.
GAYLORD — In the late 1920s and early 1930s, the Otsego County school looked a lot different than it does today.
One-room schools taught kindergarten through eighth grade and were located in the various townships. Most of the students graduating from the eighth grade had completed their formal studies and went to work on a farm. You must remember that at that time many parents and grandparents of the students could not read or write. Most agricultural work was done by hand and help, especially from boys, was desperately needed. It was indeed an honor to have a high school graduate in the family.
The high school was located in Gaylord and students had to first graduate from eighth grade in order to attend. Secondary students had to buy their own books and provide transportation to school. This put a strain on the number of boys who were able to participate in football, basketball or athletics.
Schools had not been consolidated and there were no school buses to transport students. There were also very few private cars available to take students to school. Almost everyone was walking to and from school. On several occasions, an enterprising high school student drove a cow from his farm about three miles northwest of Gaylord. The cow contentedly ate grass and waited for school to be freed when Charles came home next. Boys who played sports and practiced after school often arrived home very late. In many cases, they still had to do chores before going to bed.
It was a little easier for the girls. Many of them were able to find work at home in town, babysitting or doing housework and general housework in exchange for room and board. Women’s sports weren’t given much prominence at first.
For boys like Ed Kassuba, Louie Kujawa and many others who lived on farms, it was a test few would attempt today. They walked to school in the morning and stayed long after school to play sports. They then faced another three or four mile walk home, often in the dark and at times facing sub-zero temperatures with a blowing blizzard. This produced some tough players and Gaylord always performed well, even with a schedule made up mostly of bigger schools.
Transportation has always been a problem for away games. Gaylord did not have a school bus, although they sometimes borrow one from another district to take the team on a long trip, such as in West Branch. On trips east and west, the school used the Boyne City, Gaylord & Alpena Railroad to transport their teams to games.
Basketball was different, and private cars could be used, with owners usually paying for gas. I was manager of the basketball team and as such I had to ride in any John Makel coach car. He always rode in front, and he had a large, full-length fur coat that he always wore. At that time, the car heater was a small radiator, mounted on the firewall. Well, Makel would get in the car and wrap the big fur coat completely around the radiator. This took care of the heat during the whole trip. I can look back on some pretty chill rides.
Basketball games were played and practices were held in any available building. Usually, there were few seats for spectators and most fans stood aside. Many buildings were heated by a wood stove and sometimes the pipe was knocked over. Play was suspended until the pipe was reinserted and the smoke cleared.
Gaylord’s home games were played in the auditorium and quite often St. Mary’s, then an eighth grade school, would schedule a team for the first game. In the auditorium, if the ball hit one of the ties near the ceiling, it was an automatic jump ball. The rules have changed a lot since then.
Johannesburg, Vanderbilt, Elmira and Gaylord have consistently rated basketball as one of the top sports offered in Otsego County to our students, boys and girls. Good gear, good training, and more walking make sports and athletics a real opportunity for Otsego County students to further benefit from the Three Rs.
Robert Fritz was a longtime chronicler of Otsego County history and for many years served as postmaster in Gaylord.